With the onset of the Three Weeks, the mourning period for the destruction of
Jerusalem and the Temple that culminates with the fast day of Tisha Be’av, the
contemporary Jewish sensibility faces its annual dilemma of dissonance between
ritual and reality.
Of all the significant periods on the Jewish
calendar, the Three Weeks seem the most problematic. Considering Jewish reality
today, how is it possible to truly mourn the ancient hurban, the destruction?
The simultaneous emergence of a sovereign Israel and of the most powerful and
accepted Diaspora community in Jewish history has created an unprecedented
moment of triumph. There seems, then, something contrived, even coercive, in the
ritualized grief of the Three Weeks.
Sitting on the ground at the Wall
and chanting Lamentations on Tisha Be’av while being protected by soldiers of a
Jewish state, with Jews gathered from around the world, appears to be an
The crowds of young people socializing in the
plaza on Tisha Be’av eve seem to have it right: Enough mourning! We’ve survived!
More than survived: Thrived.
Our prayer life hasn’t internalized the
transformation of Jewish life. We continue to pray for the ingathering of the
exiles, even as millions of Jews have come home and the exile has ended,
replaced by a voluntary Diaspora. We continue to pray for the restoration of the
Temple and its service, even as most Jews today find the notion of animal
sacrifices repellent. And we continue to wish those sitting shiva that they be
comforted “among the mourners of Zion,” even as we no longer mourn for Zion but
celebrate its resurrection.
How, then, to deal with the Three Weeks?
Perhaps the appropriate response isn’t mourning as much as sobriety, a
heightened awareness of our collective failures.
The rabbis cited mutual
hatred among Jews as the sin responsible for the destruction of the Temple. In
contemporary terms, that translates into our failure to function as a people
that appreciates its diversity and can manage its disagreements with mutual
respect for each other’s visions and fears.
The basis for an individual’s
spiritual life is humility, awareness that we are transient beings whose
understanding of the world is at best incomplete.
That same insight is
the basis for a healthy national life. No part of the Jewish people can claim to
be sole heir of Jewish history. Those who believe that their community is the
only repository of Jewish wisdom, and that other communities are empty vessels
with little to contribute to our growth, risk a spiritually fatal
The Three Weeks remind us that we are a survivor
But do we behave as a survivor people? In one sense, certainly:
Jews emerged from the Holocaust determined to undo the powerlessness of exile,
and that effort has achieved extraordinary success.
But in our relations
with each other, we have failed to internalize the wisdom of a survivor people,
which knows that all our competing certainties vanish before the
We experienced the brutal wisdom of the abyss briefly, in May
1967, as Arab armies converged on Israel’s borders and Jews around the world
shared a common dread of another Holocaust. The unity that Jews expressed in
those weeks led to the victory of the Six Day War, the resurrection of Soviet
Jewry and the political empowerment of American Jewry. The Jewish world we live
in today is largely a creation of that brief moment of unity in May
But the Six Day War, of course, also opened the way for Jewish
strife. The argument over land for peace – if that option ever becomes possible
– cannot be silenced by appeals to Jewish unity.
Still, there are ways of
managing our schisms that would help us remain one people. Just as a body feels
the pain that affects any of its limbs, a healthy people knows how to grieve for
the wounds of its separate communities. In Israel today, there remain open
wounds, inflicted by fellow Jews. Many still quietly grieve for the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for our descent into fratricide – a grief that
some on the Right have resented as politically motivated. And while there is no
moral comparison between the two events, many Israelis still grieve for the
uprooting of thousands of Jews from their homes in Gaza’s Gush Katif, a trauma
that has been confined to the religious Zionist community but should be shared
by all parts of the Jewish people, regardless of political
The Wall itself, symbol of Jewish unity in the aftermath of
the Six Day War, has become a symbol of our collective dysfunctionality, hurban
of our cohesiveness. As the monthly confrontations over Women of the Wall
attest, we can no longer even pray together. But we can at least try to pray in
proximity to one another – and the government has, for the first time, offered
space at the Wall for egalitarian prayer. That too is a form of
Finally, one spiritually useful way to mark the Three Weeks is
for each Jew to consider the community he or she most resents, and then
contemplate a positive Jewish value embodied by that community. Think of the
settlers’ love of the land of Israel, of left-wingers’ love of peace, of the
anti-Zionist Satmar ladies distributing kosher food to any Jewish patient in New
York hospitals, of Reform rabbis struggling to keep Jews in an open society
Jewish. Without compromising your convictions, allow yourself to feel a measure
of gratitude toward ideological opponents who are trying in their way to be
worthy of the Jewish story.
The Three Weeks are an opportunity to pause
in our communal chatter, our endless arguments over morality and survival and
tradition and innovation, and ask ourselves: Is this the Jewish people we want
to be? Enough mourning for the sake of mourning. Let us turn the Three Weeks
into a time of Jewish healing.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow of the
iEngage Project (iengage.org.il) of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is author of the forthcoming book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli
Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to be published in
October by HarperCollins.
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